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Public TV Documentary Examines Early Childhood From Several Angles

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An hour-long documentary about early childhood in America, airing on public TV stations this month, is a curious production.

"The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation," from American Public Television (check local listings), mixes stories about particular parents and children with segments on neuroscience, along with a taste of the politics of federal child-care efforts. The goal is to "spark a much-need national conversation" about improving child care and readiness efforts, the press materials say. 

The Raising of America Trailer (11 min) from California Newsreel on Vimeo.

"The biggest question is, what do we do when a child has faced adversity, and what do we do to prevent future adversities?" says Renée Boynton-Jarrett, a Boston pediatrician who appears several times during the hour, which was produced by California Newsreel and presented by Twin Cities Public Television. She's talking about the early development of children's brains, and the neuroscience segments quickly turn to economics and political science questions. 

"Our policies actually discourage parents from being able to take care of their children when they're very young," says Robert Dugger, an economist and former hedge fund partner. 

From there it's on to a discussion of the Family and Medical Leave Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, which, compared with other industrialized nations' generous paid leave, provides only a modest guarantee of unpaid leave, and even that required a near-epic political battle.

The documentary then turns to a 1971 federal child-care bill that was modeled on Head Start, but would have provided care at low cost to families of moderate income. President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the measure.

And then it is on to a quick examination of the U.S. military's child-care system, which was once considered inadequate and unsafe, but is now held out as a model.

In between, this episode goes back to neuroscience, including a study showing that chronic "stressors" face by parents can affect infants and older children. Because the study requires samples of subjects' saliva (to check for the steroid cortisol), we see "family spit times," which the children seem to enjoy.

The day care we do have in the country is often subpar, with only one in 10 facilities being accredited, the documentary says. In California, we are told, cemeteries are inspected more often than child-care centers.

We see lots of cute babies, and the show's general thesis comes through, but each of the strands of the hour-long episode feels a bit lacking in depth. 

It turns out, there are four additional episodes of "The Raising of America" that are meant to be Web-only. I watched Episode 2, which went into much more detail on the politics of child care. 

Maybe it is the policy wonk and history buff in me, but I found this second episode much more focused and interesting. It looks at early federal child-care efforts born out of the migration of women into the workforce during World War II. Then it goes into much more depth about the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act, a measure that was backed by then-U.S. Sen. Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota and Rep. John Brademas of Indiana, both Democrats.

This was the measure that passed Congress but was vetoed by Nixon after lobbying by conservatives who suggested it would lead to a government takeover "of the raising of children." That is how Phyllis Schlafly recalls it a contemporary interview with the filmmakers. (We also get to see lots of vintage footage of Schlafly, the Illinois housewife turned longtime conservative activist.)

Besides Schlafly, the episode includes interviews with Mondale and Patrick Buchanan, who as a Nixon White House aide drafted the veto message for the bill.

This half-hour segment was so engaging that if I were making "The Raising of America," I would have led with the history segment before moving on to the themes addressed in the hour-long Episode 1.

There are three other Web-only episodes of "The Raising of America," which I didn't have time to watch. Episode 3 "demonstrates how investing in high-quality early care and education pays for itself in many ways and many times over," the press materials state. Episode 4 is about "post-traumatic stress disorder" among children in poor and trauma-filled neighborhoods. And Episode 5 explores "epigenetics," and "the evidence that fetal and early child environments literally become part of us."

All the episodes will be available free online beginning Nov. 9. While the main episode has its flaws, it does address a topic that deserves the attention. And the quality of Episode 2 gives me hope that the following, more focused episodes are just as good.

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